Enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, is the highest honor in professional football, the capstone to the careers of the sport’s greatest players, coaches and contributors. But even among the greats, some stars shine a little brighter. Here are 10 exceptional Pro Football Hall of Fame classes that stand out among the rest.
Class of 1963
Inductees: Sammy Baugh, Bert Bell, Joe Carr, Earl "Dutch" Clark, Harold "Red" Grange, George Halas, Mel Hein, Wilbur "Pete" Henry, Robert "Cal" Hubbard, Don Hutson, Earl "Curly" Lambeau, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, John "Blood" McNally, Bronko Nagurski, Ernie Nevers, Jim Thorpe
Spotlight: The Hall of Fame building itself has become iconic, and the yearly enshrinement ceremony is a major event, But it was all new in 1963, and the induction ceremonies were low key compared to today's nationally televised event. On seeing the completed structure in Canton, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle remarked, “There is no more fitting memorial. The building represents the dreams and faith of men who made it possible.”
The inductees included men who helped build the game in its early years—Halas of the Chicago Bears; Lambeau, co-founder and former coach of the Green Bay Packers; and Grange, a star running back with a fabulous nickname, "The Galloping Ghost."
Class of 1964
Inductees: Jimmy Conzelman, Ed Healey, Clarke Hinkle, William Roy "Link" Lyman, Mike Michalske, Art Rooney, George Trafton
Spotlight: Rooney’s Steelers were still a decade from the beginning of their 1970s dynasty when the team owner got the Hall call. Perhaps that’s why the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s coverage of the event struck a bemused tone. Wrote the newspaper: “The reasons for Rooney’s induction into the Hall of Fame may seem obscure. He never ran for a touchdown in a National League game. Nor did he ever throw a pass or punt. He just sat unobtrusively in the grandstand or press box and chewed on a moist, raveling cigar.” Rooney’s induction may have been curious at the time, but given the Steelers’ incredible success in the 1970s, when they won four Super Bowls, it was prescient.
READ MORE: Super Bowl History
Class of 1971
Inductees: Jim Brown, Bill Hewitt, Frank "Bruiser" Kinard, Vince Lombardi, Andy Robustelli, Y.A. Tittle, Norm Van Brocklin
Spotlight: Brown, who starred at running back for the Cleveland Browns, was the game’s greatest player to this point—and still might be—and would normally have been the headliner. But Lombardi’s posthumous induction took center stage. Lombardi—who won three NFL championships and two Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers—was known for his fiery intensity. He also was a champion for equality. Lombardi, who died in 1970, once said he viewed his players as "neither Black nor white, but Packer green,” and also fostered a locker room atmosphere in which prejudice was not tolerated. Wellington Mara, who gave Lombardi his first NFL coaching job as an assistant with the New York Giants, praised him at the induction ceremony, saying, “Vince Lombardi did not invent pro football and he did not invent the National Football League. But he embellished both to a degree never surpassed and seldom equaled.”
Class of 1972
Inductees: Lamar Hunt, Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson, Clarence (Ace) Parker
Spotlight: It’s no exaggeration to say Hunt changed professional football forever. Unable to obtain his own National Football League franchise, he formed his own rival league—the American Football League was born in 1959. Hunt’s Dallas Texans would eventually become the Kansas City Chiefs. The high-flying AFL’s eventual success against NFL teams led to a merger between the two, agreed upon in 1966. Hunt was instrumental in brokering the deal. Without Hunt’s ambition and steady hand, the AFL may never have existed, or might have folded quickly after its inception.
Class of 1985
Inductees: Frank Gatski, Joe Namath, Pete Rozelle, O.J. Simpson, Roger Staubach
Spotlight: His career statistics were middling at best—173 touchdowns and 220 interceptions—but Namath made an inedible impact on professional football when he shocked the world by leading the Jets to an upset of the heavily favored Colts in Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969. He famously guaranteed the result beforehand. That victory turned Namath into a superstar, legitimized the AFL in advance of the merger with the NFL for the 1970 season, and signaled the beginning of professional football’s takeover of the American sports landscape. Despite his larger-than-life reputation, Namath seemed awed by the gravity of the moment on induction weekend, saying, “I feel great … being around guys I watched growing up and being a part of them. It’s kind of humbling, really.”
Class of 1993
Inductees: Dan Fouts, Larry Little, Chuck Noll, Walter Payton, Bill Walsh
Spotlight: Noll retired after a wildly successful career in which he won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But while his greatness with the Steelers was unmatched, Walsh’s influence was on another level. There was a certain elegance to Walsh’s “West Coast Offense,” one that emphasized short passing, and defenses were often unable to slow it. His San Francisco 49ers won three Super Bowls in the 1980s. In describing his approach, Walsh said: “It’s not so much motivation; it’s the standard of performance. We’d play our own football game, regardless of the situation, so we had poise at the end of the game and occasionally our opponents would self-destruct.”
Class of 1999
Inductees: Eric Dickerson, Tom Mack, Ozzie Newsome, Billy Shaw, Lawrence Taylor
Spotlight: If Walsh was the man who revolutionized offense in the NFL, Taylor—a star with the New York Giants—was the man who forced the innovation. The best and most-feared edge pass rusher of all time, Taylor was supremely difficult for opponents to handle. He wrecked offenses, and was a first-team All-Pro in each of his first six seasons and eight times overall. Taylor is also one of two defensive players—the other being Minnesota’s Alan Page—to be named NFL Most Valuable Player. Famed former NFL coach and TV commentator John Madden said: “Lawrence Taylor, defensively, has had as big an impact as any player I’ve ever seen. He changed the way defense is played, the way pass-rushing is played, the way linebackers play and the way offenses block linebackers.”
Class of 2004
Inductees: Bob "Boomer" Brown, Carl Eller, John Elway, Barry Sanders
Spotlight: Elway and Sanders are two of the greatest players ever, and it's impossible to separate them when it comes to their primacy in this class. Of Elway, the former Denver Broncos quarterback, Sanders said: “If I had John Elway, we would’ve won the Super Bowl every year I played.” Of Sanders, the former Detroit Lions running back, Elway said: “I’ll call him the best ever to play the game. You never knew if he was going to make your jaw drop with a 2-yard loss or an 80-yard gain.” Elway went out on top, finishing his career with back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Sanders, just a year removed from a 2,000-yard rushing season, seemed a near-certainty to set the all-time rushing record. But he retired at 31 in 1999, and became the third-youngest Hall of Fame inductee, after Gale Sayers and Jim Brown.
Class of 2010
Inductees: Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little, John Randle, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith
Spotlight: Who could overshadow Smith, the league’s all-time leading rusher? Rice, its all-time leading receiver, and perhaps the greatest player ever, regardless of position. He is still the NFL’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns, yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards. Rice’s successes on the field were unprecedented, but in his induction speech he suggested his motivation came from the opposite direction, saying, “I’m here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire career. Not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful.”
Class of 2011
Inductees: Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter, Ed Sabol, Deion Sanders, Shannon Sharpe
Spotlight: Dent, Faulk, Hanburger, Richter, Sanders and Sharpe played the game, but Sabol—founder of NFL Films—forever changed the perception of it. The inside look of the game he gave to fans was instrumental in increasing football’s popularity. At 94 years old, Sabol went into the Hall as a contributor; it was an appropriate designation, because few people contributed more to the league than he did. Sabol, who once said he believed the Hall should be a players-only club, was characteristically humble during his induction, saying, “This honor really goes to NFL Films. You’re a great bunch of people, dedicated and loyal and hard-working, and you’re the reason I’m sitting up here.”